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Category — CREW

The Importance of CREW’s Domestic Cat Research

Guest blogger: Zoo Academy student, Jane Collins

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) is famously known to the world for its hard work on saving endangered plants and animals. Whenever people learn about CREW, they hear about the projects on polar bears, Sumatran rhinos, wild cats, and many plant species including autumn buttercup, four-petal pawpaw, and Avon Park harebells. You learn a lot about how important these projects are, but I believe there is one important aspect of CREW that is not as well known to Zoo visitors as it should be. I’ll give you a hint, re-read the title!

That’s right. I’m talking about cats. I don’t mean the wild African lion, cheetah, or tiger that you may have been thinking about. I mean domestic cats. CREW’s Domestic Cat Research is actually important to saving endangered big cats in the wild. These special cats help CREW with a number of things, including testing a contraceptive vaccine and conducting oviductal artificial inseminations and embryo transfers.

Three of the CREW cats - Taneshia, Beth and Paige

Three of the CREW cats – Taneshia, Beth and Paige

The cats in this program are given vaccines for common diseases and are spayed and neutered when at the appropriate age so they are completely cared for. CREW volunteers take the time to socialize with the cats also so they are very affectionate cats and are never neglected.

As a Zoo Academy student, I personally have had the opportunity to spend time with the cats and see up close how well they are treated.  Washing cat dishes, litter pans, animal carriers, and a few other responsibilities may have not been the finest experience, but I liked that I was making even the smallest contribution to the care of the cats. I also was able to spend quality time with most of the cats playing and relaxing, whichever the cats preferred for the day.  I had a great time learning a few of the cats’ individual personalities. One cat physically demands love and affection by climbing right into your lap. Another is very vocal. And another cat even loves water.

My favorite cat was a three-year old grey tabby with black stripes. He was the largest male domestic cat I have ever seen and looked like he belonged deep in a dark jungle rather than at a zoo. At end of my time at CREW, he was up for adoption. I couldn’t bring myself to part with him and decided to take him home. His new name is officially Chaz. He likes to follow me around EVERY square inch of my house and cries when I’ve gone too long without petting him. He is a loving member of my family. It is very cool to have a cat from the Cincinnati Zoo that has contributed to research that helps to save endangered wild cats.

Me and Chaz, a cat I adopted from CREW

Me and Chaz, a cat I adopted from CREW

April 8, 2015   1 Comment

A Study to Honor Suci the Sumatran Rhino

The loss of our female Sumatran rhino “Suci” to iron storage disease just over a year ago on March 30, 2014 was a devastating blow to the Cincinnati Zoo’s Sumatran rhino breeding program. Iron storage disease is an insidious disease affecting many wildlife species that are maintained in zoos, ranging from marine mammals to birds. In addition to Sumatran rhinos, black rhinos are susceptible to the disease, whereas white rhinos and Indian rhinos remain largely unaffected.



The disease is extremely challenging because we do not know how to prevent it, diagnose it or treat it. The only known cure for the disease is frequent, large volume phlebotomies (blood collection), but nobody knows how much blood to draw or how often it must be removed to keep a rhino healthy, and it is difficult to perform phlebotomies without anesthesia. The best method for monitoring iron storage disease is to measure serum concentrations of ferritin, a protein involved in iron transport and storage, but ferritin can be species-specific, so an assay for humans or horses may not work accurately in rhinos. Such was the case with our Sumatran rhinos.

Electrophoresis gel of isolated rhino ferritin

Electrophoresis gel of isolated rhino ferritin

However, thanks to a dear family committed to helping rhinos that wanted to make a gift in honor of Suci, CREW has embarked on a new study to develop an assay specific for measuring rhino ferritin. The first step – isolating the rhino ferritin protein – is complete, and our goal is to have a functional assay by this coming summer. Our hope is that the assay will be used to monitor iron storage status in many rhinos throughout North American zoos to ensure the disease is detected before the rhino becomes sick.

This project was made possible by the generous donation of Mr. and Mrs. Jeremy S. Hilton and Family.

(Reprinted from CREW Review Fall 2014)

April 3, 2015   4 Comments

CREW Works to Enhance Fertility in White Rhinos

White rhino with calf (Photo: James Temple)

White rhino with calf (Photo: James Temple)

In September, the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research (CREW) was awarded a National Leadership Grant from the Institution of Museum and Library Services in support of a Rhino Assisted Reproduction Enterprise (RARE) initiative for Indian rhinos and African white rhinos. Dr. Monica Stoops will be the Project Director for the grant work and will be working in partnership with Dr. Justine O’Brien from the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Reproductive Research Center (SWBGRRC), which includes a state-of-the-art sperm sorting and cryopreservation laboratory.  CREW will undertake the project to expand access and build capacity for African and Asian rhino reproductive care within North American zoological facilities. Eight zoos have committed to building a Rhino Assisted Reproduction Enterprise (RARE) in collaboration with CREW.  This project will help 1) contribute to the genetic management and propagation of captive Indian rhinos through artificial insemination (AI); 2) enhance southern white rhino fertility through exogenous hormone administration prior to natural breeding or AI; 3) build upon national rhino gamete rescue centers at CREW and SWBGRRC; and 4) provide collaborating facilities with individualized training and/or support in rhino assisted reproductive technology (exogenous hormone protocols, ultrasonography, endocrine analysis, AI, and sperm collection, sorting and cryopreservation).

One part of the proposed research will be to continue and expand upon a preliminary CREW investigation conducted to develop an exogenous hormone protocol to initiate reproductive activity in previously acyclic southern white rhinos. The African white rhino remains the most popular rhino species held in U.S. zoos (although we do not currently house them here in Cincinnati). Although captive breeding has been successful and a sufficient number of calves are being produced to consistently maintain the population, the proportion of breeding recommendations resulting in offspring is quite low. It is estimated that <30% of all wild born and <20% of captive born African white rhinos have reproduced in captivity. These numbers reflect a major impediment to achieving a sustainable captive breeding program for this species.

White rhino with calf at one of the partnering institutions, Lowry Park Zoo (Photo: Matthew Paulson)

White rhino with calf at one of the partnering institutions, Lowry Park Zoo (Photo: Matthew Paulson)

A primary reason for the low reproductive rate is that a vast majority of females display long periods of acyclicity. Significant progress has been made in initiating reproductive activity in acyclic white rhinos in Europe using exogenous hormones. However, many drugs used overseas are not commercially available in the United States. Therefore, it became necessary
to develop novel hormone protocols using U.S. drugs to similarly promote a resumption in reproductive activity for acyclic white rhinos.

CREW scientists, in partnership with several North American zoos, embarked on a preliminary exogenous hormone trial in which four acyclic female white rhinos were treated. Females responded by growing preovulatory follicles, but did not stand for breeding by a male and required an additional hormone to ovulate. This initial hormone protocol may be adequate should artificial insemination be performed, but CREW scientists and partner zoos are working to develop an alternative hormone protocol that will result in natural mating so that more individual rhinos and institutions will benefit. By enhancing the fertility of captive African white rhinos, CREW is helping to ensure the sustainability of this rhino population.


January 14, 2015   1 Comment